David Altmejd inquires of me, “Why not fashion?”
It only made sense that fashion would be the topic of conversation when I interviewed him about the marvelous sculptures he produces.
His work often incorporates clothing, jewelry, wigs, and more, such as the birdmen donning dapper suits and rhinestone flowers growing from werewolf carcasses.
Gold chains meander through reflective counters and cabinets. He sources his materials from the fashion world to transform them into his own unique vision.
Marc Jacobs and Raf Simons are not the only admirers of his work; it is both creative and captivating while also being widely praised.
At the age of thirty-seven, he has achieved international acclaim with his pieces being showcased in numerous galleries such as the Whitney Museum, the Guggenheim, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Canada.
Growing up in Montreal, Altmejd attended the Université du Quebec a Montreal before finishing his studies at Columbia.
His presence in New York since graduating has not erased his francophone accent, and he apologizes for the quality of his English. However, Altmejd speaks well and his sculptures are a testament to his unique and idiosyncratic ideas.
We met almost 10 years ago and fashion has been the foundation of our friendship.
We talk about style and go shopping sometimes; he always looks great! In The Show That Smells, a novel I wrote, iconic figures Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli have a fight for the soul of a country singer.
My friend Altmejd designed the cover art, featuring a crystal-embellished werewolf head with a wild hair-do. It’s a clear indication that Schiaparelli won if you know anything about fashion.
— Derek McCormack was the name that came to mind.
When we first encountered one another several years ago, we strolled through midtown Manhattan in search of costume jewelry ideal for your projects.
You purchased a brooch with the word “ART” spelled out in rhinestones. I’m curious – whatever happened to that piece?
According to David Altmejd, he did not make use of it as it would be too evident.
BLVR: It would still look great on a blouse, wouldn’t it?
The appropriateness of a blouse would depend on the specifics of the blouse and the individual wearing it. It could be quite stylish on an older woman.
BLVR: Being an older woman, may I receive it? [Laughter] I bring up the ART brooch since jewelry, and particularly brooches, are a major component of your art.
I am quite fond of wearing jewelry.
I find it captivating how your creations infuse apparel and jewelry, as well as how they distort and manipulate ideas of display and retailing.
Display is something I’m interested in, though it’s not my primary focus. I’m not against the idea of taking some cues from store displays. I’ve never been one to copy a store’s presentation, but I find I use similar strategies instinctively.
BLVR: What is the source of the jewelry you wear?
I used to frequent wholesale stores that would provide customers with a basket upon entry. One could purchase a brooch for a mere two dollars.
Nowadays, rather than buying the finished jewelry, I purchase the components and assemble them together to create something unique.
Does the utilization of precious gems occur in your work?
DA: No, the jewelry I work with isn’t expensive. I use real crystals and amethysts, yet any diamonds I utilize are artificial. Cost isn’t what matters, it’s the effect the ornamentation can make.
Do you have any interest in the pieces created by jewelers when galleries or museums are displaying them?
My inclination lies towards aesthetically pleasing artifacts. I’m not so much into the historical aspect of jewelry, the timeline of makers and such. I prefer singular pieces. When I’m really at work, I feel like I’m a jewelry designer crafting a piece.
When designing a sculpture, what guides the placement of pieces of jewelry? Is it a feeling of what is proper?
I have an affinity for symmetry and balance – especially when it comes to fashion. It’s like a designer is looking at a model and they add that one piece that completes the look and they know it’s perfect. [Laughter]
Is it possible for jewelry to be considered art?
In my opinion, the act of creating jewelry is more likely to be thought of as an art than a fashion. When a jeweler is creating something, they can get completely immersed in the process, not worrying about what the final product will be used for.
On the other hand, a fashion designer is more likely to consider how people will wear their pieces when creating them.
Is it possible for fashion to be considered art?
As opposed to art, fashion is more mindful of individual tastes. Though it may challenge the status quo, it is still done in a tasteful manner. Even when it attempts to be unrefined, it still retains its elegance. Art, on the other hand, seems to have more room for experimentation.
It’s possible for a designer to create something daring or off the wall, but they will still require clients who are willing to don these pieces, as well as have the financial means to purchase them.
In my opinion, the concept of ‘cool’ is essential when it comes to fashion; I believe that when fashion creators do something daring, it is expected to be cool immediately. In the case of art, there is the expectation that it will continue to be daring or unexpected, at least for a period of time.
The fashion industry moves quickly; the trendiest items are expected to be adopted quickly. Art is also often accepted quickly, but sometimes it remains mysterious and challenging for a period of time.
I believe art is distinct; it’s very abstract in a sense, so it allows you to do anything. Conversely, fashion is not really conceptual. Even when it is, as with Hussein Chalayan, it’s mainly a style – it’s “the conceptual”, in quotation marks. It’s the appearance of “conceptual”. Sorry, sometimes my English is really awful.
In the year 2004, I had the pleasure of meeting you while you were a part of the Whitney Biennial.
DA: You composed a piece regarding me and it was entitled “Hairy Winston.”
At the time of the purchase of the ART brooch, I couldn’t help but think of it being placed within a werewolf sculpture. I was adamant that it should not be done as the silver brooch should not be put in a werewolf.
I did not do it.
At the time, sculptures of decaying werewolves were created by you. Adorned with costume jewelry and crystals, these werewolves were given a unique and striking appearance.
The radiance of jewelry can be seen as a pulse, a form of real energy that stands out when placed on something lifeless. It vibrates visually and brings a fascinating contrast to the inanimate.
BLVR: The werewolf sculptures didn’t signify mortality and deterioration in the least; instead, they were about alchemy. Through the processes of death, jewels and crystals were fashioned; they were developing. There was a mystical aspect to them.
Perhaps it was an enchanted occurrence. I tend to see it as a physical, material event. The ornaments contribute to the transformation.
As an example, I use a gold chain to link components. To me, it facilitates the movement of energy from one point to the other.
BLVR stated that the jewelry holds energy, and functions like a conduit, redirecting and refracting it. He finds it fascinating how it changes its roles in different scenarios. Furthermore, he loves that it doesn’t have to be expensive; it can be a cheap piece of rhinestone too.
At the Andrea Rosen Gallery in 2004, BLVR noticed that there were a lot of werewolves and jewelry featured in the artist’s first solo exhibition.
It seemed to BLVR to be a show partially dedicated to showing off the jewelry.
I recall a phrase you spoke to me that was intended to be included in your book. It went something like this: the opening at the tip of a penis resembled the indentation at the top of a jewelry box where a ring is usually kept.
BLVR remarked that the initial show they saw was their fault, due to the presence of deceased werewolves engaging in various sexual acts.
They couldn’t tell if the werewolves were actually dead or not, but described them as being adorned with gold chains and costume jewelry, lying in extravagant mirrored boxes and on counters.
Inquiring about how to bring an object to life, I used to spend a lot of time figuring out how to give it a sense of value. I don’t think there are countless ways to do this; if I had a werewolf head, for example, I’d have to arrange it properly so that it could transmit an energy.
A picture of David Altmejd is depicted in the following image. It was taken from the website of Culture.org in 2011.
BLVR commented that the chains and jewelry seemed to be acting as a source of energy, and that it made sense to consider retail stores in this context.
They noted that few places are as charged with energy and interest as a store counter. They wondered what kind of store would sell dead werewolves, or use them as jewelry displays.
I’m uncertain about the answer.
BLVR asked what the speaker had been saying.
We can ask ourselves how to activate an object? Placing it in the middle of a table gives the impression of a store display, but this is not the only way to make something seem valuable.
Churches have had a long-standing tradition of displaying sacred items, and this is a way of highlighting its importance.
At the 2007 Biennale of Venice, mannequins were a part of the sculptures used by BLVR.
I do have some experience in sculpting, however it was only for that project I did in the past. Plus, the sculptures had bird heads.
Do you recall when you first began adding garments to your sculptures?
DA: I incorporated a couple of pairs of 2(x)ist underwear and shoes into some of my werewolf sculptures years ago.
The dirtiness of the underwear was intentional – I wanted it to appear as though it was slowly decaying along with the body, becoming one with it. 2(x)ist is a popular brand, available in many department stores alongside Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss and others.
The idea was to hint at existentialism through the use of underwear. [Laughter]
My imagination placed the mannequins in Venice into a store, but not for men, instead for the “birdmen”. How about you? Are mannequins something you enjoy?
I’ve never felt an affinity for clothes that are displayed on mannequins. Window-shopping for outfits that are donned by lifeless figures just doesn’t appeal to me at all. It simply isn’t exciting in my opinion.
Could you explain whether the intention of the mannequins was to illustrate a sense of lifelessness?
DA: To give the mannequins a sense of life, I dressed them up. That’s a bit of a paradox since clothes won’t make the clothes appear more animated; rather, it is the mannequins which appear livelier when they are wearing garments.
BLVR: Was there any particular fashion designer whose garments were used to clothe the mannequins?
DA: I can’t recall exactly. I had a mix of fresh apparel as well as pre-owned items. I wanted to avoid them looking like they were in a shop display.
BLVR: At a booth containing crystals and mirrors, I saw a man with the head of a bird. It looked like a change room, and I wondered if he was switching between being a bird and a man, or perhaps just trying on clothes. Although I thought it might be a confessional booth, the mirrors suggested a retail purpose.
DA: Broken and fragmented mirrors can be found in a variety of places, including stores and displays.
You don’t take the time to observe yourself in them; instead, it’s the mirrors on the wall that are used to check out your outfit.
The mirrors that are on counters and columns, however, are not looked at. Mirrors play an important role as they alter and extend the surrounding space with their movement and reflections.
Do churches use mirrors? If I was to construct a cathedral, I would certainly include mirrors all over to create a unique effect.
In Nature, Bees are like Brooches
In 2011, Andrea Rosen Gallery showcased a couple of massive sculptures named BLVR: The Vessel and The Swarm.
These Plexiglas containers were filled with mixtures of bugs, plaster hands and ears, and long lengths of thread. This was the first occasion in which the artist utilized thread, which billowed out and fluctuated in intensity, looped back through apertures, and encircled shelves and items.
DA: Before the show, I had crafted a few items that had thread, but I hadn’t worked with it a lot. It was a substitute for the gold chain I used in the large Plexiglas boxes, with webs and networks of gold chain. I started to use thread to add some color.
BLVR: Did you color them?
I created a range of colors by painting numerous strands with a light acrylic paint. This was to get the gradations of color that I desired.
BLVR: The bees and jellyfish you crafted from thread and Plexiglas really stood out to me as the most similar thing to jewelry that you have created.
DA was very fond of the insects, particularly those that give rather than take. He found that they could be seen as generators, with bees pollinating flowers as an example.
He wanted to incorporate this concept into his work, where he wanted everything to be generated within the work.
To accomplish this, he used Plexi bees to generate gold chain and spools to generate thread. All of this was to ensure that everything was coming from a source. With a light-hearted comment, he concluded the explanation by saying it sounded cheesy.
What brings about the coils of thread?
DA: The spools have all been crafted out of Plexiglas. The material is the same as the box. I consider these spools to be a variation of the Plexi box which they are contained within.
BLVR commented that the Plexi boxes gave a glimpse into the activity that was happening inside the gallery. He observed that there is constantly something going on, even if it is not visible to the naked eye.
The box created by the artist allowed people to observe the secret happenings at all times.
The box serves as a foundation for me to attach objects to and give the illusion that they are suspended in the air, since its transparency allows it to be invisible.
BLVR: The spools are made of the same Plexiglas material as the box, almost as if the box and window were producing the rare item within them.
DA appreciates playing with shifting perspectives. For example, in one of his pieces, he starts off pretending that the box is just an invisible support, with a Plexiglas structure that allegedly does not exist.
As the narrative progresses, the ants start to walk atop the Plexi, signifying the moment when the structure finally begins to exist. By going back and forth between the box’s presence and absence, the artist is able to create an interesting dynamic.
BLVR: It was evident in the art, as if one was observing an exhibition, yet then one would observe the Plexi was cracked and it had become part of the artwork.
I found the fractures in it to be quite enjoyable. It has a part in the generation of something new. From my perspective, it was a fun thing to do.
BLVR: Does the sparkle of jewelry have a similar effect when worn on people as it does when used in sculptures?
I strongly believe that jewelry has the ability to change a person in some way. I’m fascinated by the way jewelry is placed on people. It’s not an arbitrary choice, for example a necklace usually hangs in the middle of the chest.
BLVR: Jewelry is akin to perfume: both are designed to be worn in places with heat and circulation, such as behind the ears, the wrists, and the base of the neck.
DA: Although you don’t need heat to make jewelry sparkle, it might have something to do with the fact that they are placed on sensitive areas. Bindis, for example, are well-positioned. Earrings, however; I am unsure of their relevance.
How do you feel about that? Lip piercings, in my opinion, are horrible. It conveys a lack of consideration and seems to be a lazy decision. Not to mention, the lips are delicate and often, the piercing is not in the center.
As for tongue piercings, even though I don’t like them, I find them interesting. It just causes me physical discomfort.
BLVR believes that some people might get piercings simply to draw attention and surprise people with the sight of it, causing people to exclaim in shock.
I don’t have any piercings, and I’m not sure I could. If I wanted to take control of my body, though, I might consider one.
A person could tell me, “David, your body is yours to do whatever you want with. Piercing it is an option, and it’s not a terrible idea. Don’t be scared, David; you can make your own decisions.”
BLVR: Is there any desire for you to gain authority over your physical self?
The thought of it could be absolutely exhilarating.
BLVR: Not wearing any jewelry pieces is something that you do.
DA expressed that they liked the idea of wearing jewelry, but they don’t. The reason being that they felt it would make it more noticeable that they had a body, acting as a sort of attention-grabber. It would be uncomfortable for them.
BLVR: It causes unease when others notice that you are not concealed. Being unseen holds significance to you.
DA: It’s not a matter of importance to me, it’s just a fact. I’ve experienced feeling unseen since I was little. I’m visible to you, but not to many other people. I can go down a road and not be noticed.
It is an awful experience for a youngster to have that kind of emotion.
DA: It was a difficult experience. I had the idea that I would prove something to everyone when I grew up; it wasn’t a matter of revenge, I just wanted to demonstrate something. Since I was so overlooked, I had the chance to ruminate and gain insight.
BLVR: You continue to experience these emotions.
Without a doubt, that is correct.
BLVR: Wearing jewelry would be like the Invisible Man donning a bow tie, making his invisibility compromised?
If I were to be invisible, people would still be able to observe the jewelry I’m wearing. Adornments don’t serve any other purpose than to be seen. They are always loud and attention-grabbing.
BLVR: When it comes to apparel, how do you make your decisions on what to don?
DA: Unlike jewelry, clothes can be used to make a statement or to make someone inconspicuous. I personally prefer to dress in a manner which will help me blend in with the crowd.
BLVR: What ways can garments be used to emphasize one’s ability to go unnoticed?
DA: [Pause] It’s best to steer clear of styles that are too fashionable. I have my own set of rules and regulations for what I wear, but it’s hard for me to articulate them.
BLVR commented that they believed many homosexual men had the same concept growing up as they did, feeling as if they were not seen or were monstrous and terrible.
They would rather be unseen than be seen as exceptionally unattractive, something they always felt they were.
DA: Your appearance has never been unpleasing or revolting!
BLVR: It’s hard for me to understand this, David, because of your attractiveness. You are well-known for being intimate, David; you have partners. People take note of you. People recognize you.
I don’t think they have ever seen the light of day; whenever I see them, it’s always night. [Chuckling]
BLVR: I can’t help but reminisce about your exhibition at Andrea Rosen back in 2008. The sculptures that were presented were quite massive, like the Statue of David, only much bigger.
BLVR: Your presence is unnoticed yet you create grand sculptures of yourself that take center stage in the art show. Remarkably, some of the pieces were created out of mirrors, however they did not reflect back like a regular mirror – rather, they both drew attention as well as deflected it.
As a sculptor, I find it gratifying to create tangible objects. My sculptures serve as my physical and visual moorings in the world. Additionally, the mirrors in the figures act to divert attention, creating an entirely different experience.
BLVR: It is undoubtedly nerve-racking to receive criticism of one’s work.
The thought of being invisible can be a comforting one, as no one can criticize me or my body. It’s a reminder that I exist in this world, and the satisfaction it brings is immense. This is particularly true for me as I observe the sculptures I create, knowing that I exist in them and through them.
A photo of David Altmejd can be seen in the following image, which was taken from Culture.org. It displays him in a portrait style.
BLVR suggests that those standing in for you are a reflection of you, but that you still understand that they are proxies and not the real you.
DA: I cannot bring myself to move away from the situation. I am not fond of witnessing this. I’m comfortable knowing people are observing my work, however, I do not wish to witness it. It makes me feel dizzy. It is not meant to be this way. It would be like being out of my body, and viewing others viewing it. It is embarrassing.
BLVR: Therefore, your sculptures are an extension of yourself; they are tangible, physical objects that permit you to be seen.
Your artworks have taken many forms: werewolves that are decaying and decorated with crystal, mirrored mazes, anthropomorphic birds, and Plexiglas boxes that contain intertwining thread and bugs.
All of the Davids (your creations) are emphasized with jewelry, although you don’t wear any; all of the Davids are flamboyant, although you are not. The boxes are invisible compartments, yet they can become visible. I could characterize you in a similar way.
The sculptures constantly seem to be full of life. The vigor of your work is everlasting; it is constantly moving and changing.
I’m curious to know if the passage of time will have any effect. It is possible to envision a trinket so shrouded in dust that the energy it contains will remain sealed. What if the ornamentation becomes tarnished? Will it still glitter? Does it mean the item is no longer functioning? Does it retain its potency? Is the magical element only connected to its glimmer?
BLVR: Who on Earth would neglect to dust off their David Altmejd?
There is no cause for concern in my opinion; I am confident that dust won’t be fatal.
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